By Stephen Aspeling11 September 2023
Vengeance: Stetsons, Frito pies and … murder?
Vengeance is the kind of movie title you’d typically associate with Liam Neeson, who’s ironically made headlining revenge-fuelled takedowns his “very particular set of skills”, thrown into deadly scenarios and forced to exact street justice to rescue someone near and dear through whatever means necessary.
But in Vengeance, it’s refreshing for our steely-eyed hero’s metallic weapons to consist of a ballpoint pen and digital recorder. A dish best served cold, Vengeance is more cerebral, thought-provoking and even heartwarming in the way it peels back the layers of homegrown “Whataburger” logic to discover what it means to be American.
While this satirical fish-out-of-water sideshow is technically more Borat than Liam Neeson, Vengeance is actually stuck somewhere in the middle with BJ Novak as our intrepid guide. It’s kind of funny to think of anyone from the cast of The Office starring in a film about tracking down a murderer in the heart of Texas. Somehow Novak makes this detour entirely plausible, casting himself in the lead role as journalist and podcaster Ben Manalowitz.
Headlining his very own breakthrough crime mystery caper, he’s ably supported by the handsome Boyd Holbrook, who brings some Liam Neeson edge thanks to his roles in Run All Night and A Walk Among the Tombstones. Just as unexpected as Novak is Ashton Kutcher in a stetson, whose uncharacteristic key supporting performance adds depth and soul.
Starting with an out-of-the-blue phone call to get Ben to an ex’s funeral in Texas, his next big story idea evolves along with his character. Taken in by an average yet welcoming Texan family, his immersion into their seemingly unambitious and backward way of life leads to self-reflection and personal revelation. A vicarious journey of self-discovery, Ben’s quest for achievement becomes more altruistic in spite of mirages and roadblocks. Deliberately slow-boiling, Vengeance is an entertaining caper of strong contrasts and a social commentary on modern values, metanarratives, perspective, family and free will.
Taking on a similar vibration to While We’re Young in its dissection of the here and now, Vengeance is also reminiscent of biographical interview drama, The End of the Tour.
Novak’s script is hauntingly relevant, enough to warrant a second viewing with subtitles, capturing the soul-searching undercurrent of Noah Baumbach’s generational comedy drama, While We’re Young. Then, the journalistic endeavour, offbeat comedy, indie spirit and free-range interview technique recalls the sharp wit, organic dialogue and slow-creeping intimacy of The End of the Tour.
As writer, producer, director and star, this is undoubtedly Novak’s movie and a passion project. He was inspired by a poster with a similar title at a film festival, which spawned the counterpoint concept of his face headlining such a movie title. The self-aware and comical juxtaposition has traction, which is further enhanced by airdropping a New York City writer into the middle-of-nowhere Texas.
In a wretched walk on the wild side, Novak captures a similar western dynamic to the culture-shock doc The Boers at the End of the World. What’s even more surprising is just how thoughtful Vengeance is in its social exploration – essentially using its New Yorker in Texas investigative podcast scenario to represent the blue versus red state undercurrent and prickly political identity war of American society.
Poking fun at ideologies and values for the sake of comedy, the cross-section of characters break type just as readily, offering homegrown wisdom and a degree of high-minded philosophical complexity to this docudrama type caper. Novak uses the fish-out-of-water scenario and timely dialogue to pick at the seams of American gun, drug and diet culture without becoming preachy.
Cleverly taken from the perspective of a podcast series in the making, Novak finds a good balance between contemplative moments and colourful slice-of-life visuals. He makes direct reference to Richard Linklater, the Texan auteur behind films such as Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Boyhood, who he takes inspiration from in crafting Vengeance. Incorporating a similar bittersweet, thoughtful and life-like flow to create a sense of reality, the rich free-flowing dialogue reinforces the Linklater connection.
Vengeance has strong influences but BJ Novak’s smart script, high contrasts, inspired vision and sensitive direction drive it home. Funny, thought-provoking and suspenseful, it leans on clear-eyed performances, unpredictable storytelling and an intriguing docudrama style investigation against the dusty backdrop of the “we don’t call 9-1-1” Lone Star State.
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